Slow burn near the gas grill

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

We've never been what you'd call experts at outdoor grilling. We're your basic Weber kettle types, with dinner parties that have long gaps after the salad because Les runs into the kitchen to say that the fire's too hot, or not hot enough.

    But our friends began buying those big gas-powered grills, the ones that look like restaurant stoves moved outdoors, made of stainless steel with electric spits and everything else the weekend warrior might need except running water. They look fabulous. You can smoke a 25-pound turkey; you never have to start the charcoal; if you decide to cook out at the last minute, you just turn a knob.

    We shopped for a larger grill. We weren't interested in the deluxe models with price tags in the thousands. We simply wanted something larger than the kettle that was easy to operate.

We settled on an Australian model called Sunshine. It had two cast-iron

grills, a cast-iron griddle that could replace one of them, four gas burners, an optional hinged lid for smoking those turkeys, and a small teak counter on either side.

    We bought the larger propane tank and a fancy padded green cover so the teak wouldn't rot sitting out on the deck. We even indulged in a couple of those long-handled barbecue tools. We didn't spend thousands, but by the end of the day, we'd laid out over $500 for the new toy.

    Some assembly was required, but I'm married to a woodworker. He is a man who built a dining room table for 14, a man who can cut dovetails and make perfectly fitting drawers. A gas grill presented no problem. In a couple of hours he had the thing up and connected. The oiled teak counters shone, the black metal hood gleamed. Bring on the Baby Back Pork Ribs with Mocha Java Barbecue Sauce, the barbecued squab, the grilled venison steaks in red wine marinade. We were ready.

    We started with something a little easier: grilled chicken pieces. The fire didn't seem to get hot enough. We turned on all four burners. We lowered the top, which the instructions said not to do, because the intense heat would bubble the paint off. The paint didn't bubble. The chicken eventually cooked, but it didn't taste particularly barbecued.

    Too much air coming in, we decided. An Australian design flaw. We took pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil and blocked every possible opening.

    Our next attempt was salmon filets for company. Again, four burners going full blast, top up, top down, and still no real heat. The salmon arrived at the table more or less steamed. There were none of those great grill marks that make outdoor cooking so delicious and carcinogenic.

    Forget it, we decided. Some people are meant to own big gas grills, and some of us should stick to charcoal. We wrapped Sunshine in its big green cover, tied it down and let it sit for a year.

    Friends of ours, Dan and Susan, had us over for dinner. He'd bought a gas grill at a garage sale for $5, and the burners kept falling apart. On the way home, I suggested that we donate our grill to the thrift shop. Dan could help us move it and buy it back from the thrift shop. We'd at least get a tax deduction.

    Dan loved the idea. A date was set. Les took off the cover, hosed off the dust, cleaned the barbecue with Easy-Off and took it apart. He and Dan loaded it onto Dan's truck in pieces. The guy at the thrift shop said he wasn't supposed to let someone buy something before it hit the store floor, but he took Dan's $50 and let them go.

    Dan and Susan invited us over that night to celebrate the new barbecue. They would furnish salmon steaks, chicken breasts and hamburger. We'd bring chicken-apple sausage and pepper-cured bacon from the local smokehouse.

    We could see the smoke as we drove up. Dan had set the unit up outside his barn. One entire grill was filled with vegetables: slices of onion, peppers, zucchini and squash, every slice showing nice brown grill marks. When the veggies were done, we filled both grills with meat. Long ceramic burners, burners that I didn't remember seeing before, leapt with flame. The bacon sizzled, the sausage popped. Everything got that dark, wonderful char-broiled look. The food tasted glorious.

    You guys have the touch, I said. We were never able to do it.

    Remind me to tell you something later, Les whispered.

    Driving home, I reminded him.

    "When I took the grill apart to clean it, something didn't look right, so I looked at the instruction manual. You saw the drip pan that Dan slid under the burners to catch the grease?" I had: a deep, heavy metal pan the size of all four burners.

    "I must have messed up. When I assembled the thing, I put that on top of the burners instead of underneath."

    I stared at him, trying to comprehend. You mean we were trying to barbecue through the drip pan?

    He nodded.

    We just gave away a perfectly operating, enormous, $500 gas grill?

    He nodded.

    I'd rather he hadn't told me. I prefer to think that we lack the talent to use gas than that we're too stupid to put a grill together.

    We got a lovely thank-you note. Dan and Susan are ecstatic. They called the neighbors over to show it off. They're planning a cowboy breakfast with pancakes on the griddle. They will never cook indoors again.

    I keep telling myself it's okay. We have the charcoal kettle, and there's always that $50 deduction.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.